Days of Wine and Rights

Clinking champagne glasses between a Chinese official and an American diplomat in Beijing made a jarring image right after the US State Department's annual human rights report. They were celebrating the renewal of a textile trade agreement, while State was reporting that in China "all public dissent against the party and government was effectively silenced by intimidation, exile, the imposition of prison terms, administrative detention, or house arrest."

This is a trading partner?

Well, yes. And toasting a trade agreement, which does call for Chinese efforts to stop deceptive practices, may be less offensive than President Clinton having coffee with China's main arms dealer, who purportedly got White House access when nobody checked the guest list.

But even if the United States inadvertently gives favor to a Chinese weaponeer and advertently gives most favored nation benefits to his country, the State Department deserves credit for vetting human rights without apparent favor to anyone. And China is only the biggest of abusers with which the US nevertheless wants to deal. Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are among the rights violators high on America's business list. "How useful is a well done report if it has little or no impact on US policy?" asked an advocate for human rights in Asia.

"Every country is different," said a department official queried about inconsistencies in how abuses affect US relations with various countries.

Every administration worldwide must weigh the relative merits of human rights adherence and business trading. This newpaper has hailed State's human rights reports over the years and hopes for more follow-up to substantiate what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in releasing the latest survey: "Human rights are and will remain a key element in our foreign policy, both in our bilateral relationships and in our leadership within international organizations."

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